Youth Justice


Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.
–Henry David Thoreau

A little boy planted a carrot seed. His mother said, “I am afraid it won’t come up.” His father said “I’m afraid it won’t come up.” And his big brother said, “It won’t come up.” Every day the little boy pulled up the weeds around the seed and sprinkled the ground with water. But nothing came up. And nothing came up. Everyone kept saying it wouldn’t come up. But he still pulled up the weeds around it every day and sprinkled the ground with water. And then, one day, a carrot came up just as the little boy had known it would. 
The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss

This is the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program’s twentieth anniversary. Since the program began more than 135,000 children across the country have had an enriching CDF Freedom Schools summer or after-school experience and more than 15,000 college students and recent graduates have been trained to teach the integrated reading curriculum whose books reflect the lives of the K-12 children and youths, and give them hope. The program is a servant leadership incubator sowing seeds for two generations—the children served and the “servant leaders” who teach and serve them.

The college students most often come from the communities they serve and are role models for the children. It is hard to be or dream of what you can be if you don’t see it. Recently five of the program’s veteran Ella Baker Trainers, some of the best and most experienced servant leaders selected to teach younger servant leaders in our “train the trainer” model how to effectively deliver the Freedom Schools curriculum, spoke about the transformative impact CDF Freedom Schools has had on their own lives.

La’Mont Geddis was a member of the very first class of servant leaders in 1995. Dr. Maya Angelou spoke to that small but eager group as they finished their training and participated in the first Freedom Schools graduation. She engulfed them with her passion and confidence in them: “Let me tell you who you are. You are the rainbow in the clouds for people whose faces you have not seen yet, whose names you don’t know yet, whose histories you haven’t been told yet. And you are, each one of you, individually, privately, each one of you is a rainbow chosen to be in the clouds for somebody.”

La’Mont was already studying education at Howard University when he got involved with Freedom Schools, but says much of what he knows about how to care for and reach children and be a rainbow in their clouds comes from the Freedom Schools: “My long list of what I learned through Freedom Schools began with understanding poverty. I thought, initially, that poverty only had something to do with money or the lack of. I found out there is an emotional poverty, a love poverty, mental poverty, social poverty, and that’s what is comprised in our inner-city schools, impoverished children. These children are victims of poverty, and sometimes hurt people hurt people. So how do you help them and not exclude them? You know how? I learned it in Freedom School. You give them a voice. That’s what Freedom Schools help us to understand.” Today La’Mont is the principal of Malcolm X Elementary School located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. and is one of the founders of the Omega Freedom School.

Barbara Cornejo, an immigrant from Chile, left college the semester before she became a Freedom Schools servant leader because of financial problems, but the experience of teaching so many children about the importance of education helped inspire her to find a way to finish her own and become a public school teacher serving at-risk children. Barbara eventually enrolled in a master’s program in Education, Administration, and Policy and is now about to pursue a doctorate in curriculum and instruction. She says, “Freedom Schools taught me to believe that there was something inside of me so strong. I knew I could make a difference in myself, in my familia, in my community, my countries, my world, with hope, education, and action.”

Brandi Brown, the executive director of the longest standing Freedom School in Texas, says she learned as a young Freedom Schools teacher that the Freedom Schools mantra of believing in children so they can believe in themselves isn’t just empty words — setting high expectations for children does work. The parent education component that is a key part of all Freedom Schools also helped her in an unexpected way when she and her husband became guardians of her husband’s 7-year-old nephew. She told the more than 2000 servant leaders this year that just as they should encourage their students to do their very best, they should remember to always do and give their own best too.

Rebekah Piper, a former kindergarten teacher and Freedom Schools site coordinator, program director, and curriculum consultant from Las Vegas, says her Freedom Schools experience has shaped her professional path, her special passion for multicultural children’s literature, and her own decision to pursue a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction. She told the young leaders about to begin their own Freedom Schools experience, “I encourage you to dream about the endless possibilities. The world is in your hands. Reach for it.”

Rashida Ford is a fifth grade teacher in Baltimore whose commitment to serving children runs through every part of her life. She is a graduate of Morgan State University and is enrolled in a master’s program in Educational Leadership at Loyola University of Maryland. Rashida says she believes every child is capable of achieving and it is the community’s responsibility to make sure every child’s aspirations come to life. I’m so proud to say Rashida is another one of the many young education leaders whose dedication to children was fostered through the CDF Freedom Schools program.

As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it, “I am increasingly worried that our teachers, our administrators don’t reflect the great diversity of our nation’s students, and that is a real problem. And if we are serious about having more of our young men of color be successful, we need a heck of a lot more men of color in our classrooms, and Freedom Schools are helping to create that pipeline.”

Freedom Schools are training a new generation of public school teachers who love, respect, and set high expectations for all of the children in their care. I hope many many more will join them but only if they love and respect children and are committed to helping all children learn. We need schools filled with servant leader teachers and administrators committed to standards of excellence, instilling confidence in all our children, and transforming children’s lives and our nation’s future.

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Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.